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Torment in the clutter

Thy Father’s Chair explores the relationship between mental health and domestic disorder. At the Open City Documentary Festival, 23 June 2016.

"Thy Father's Chair", Alex Lora and Antonio Tibaldi, 2015. All rights reserved.In 2001, Channel 4’s "Cutting Edge" programme produced one of the most powerful and insightful documentaries about mental illness. Brian Davis was an eminent journalist and the editor of Campaign magazine until his abrupt resignation in Christmas 1984. Brian’s Story meets him on the streets of London, living homeless and penniless, in a state of alcoholism and manic depression. Brian is still exceptionally lucid – at times even lyrical – and professes to be on the cusp of turning his life around; a transformation he hopes will be captured in documentary form. Aiming to give him a fresh start, and curb his destructive habits, Brian’s cousin lends him a newly furnished property to live in near his childhood home in Merseyside. Within days, however, the flat is a chaotic mess; within weeks, it has burnt down. We begin to intuit something of his torment in the clutter: it would be too simple to read it as a metaphor (creative minds are often disordered, and obsessive tidiness may suggest repression), but it becomes clear that Brian is in denial about his lack of self-control.

This mapping of the mind onto domestic order is the subject of Thy Father’s Chair (2015), a documentary following middle-aged unmarried Orthodox Jewish twin brothers who live together in Brooklyn. Avraham and Shraga are serial hoarders, but a dispute over the wretched smell in their flat (infested with cockroaches, and a shelter for stray cats) has led to a dispute with their rent-paying tenants upstairs. Driven by necessity to seek a solution, they hire the company Home Clean Home (HCH), led by Hanan, a secular Israeli, who subscribes more faithfully to the religious dictum that cleanliness is close to godliness.

The chair of the film’s title belonged to their father, whose death hangs like a pall over the flat – every object, however banal, is imbued with memory, resulting in a kind of manic curation. The habit is debilitating, and psychologically revealing: the more the hoard is ignored, the more it increases. Hanan’s team of Latino and African-American cleaners are patient and good-humoured as they sift through the inexplicable collection of spare shoes and redundant keyboards, but the process is clearly painful for the brothers, both of whom resort to wine to ease their anxiety. The only area not cleared is the basement, in which – with Freudian symbolism – their father’s possessions lay reverently untouched.

Antonio Tibaldi’s cinematography is accomplished, if at times a little voyeuristic: the camera focuses on Avraham’s blotchy, bitten skin at length, and the viewer may feel as if intruding on a wake. In a tense situation, the directors gained an impressive amount of access, and the film reflects the emotional honesty of the protagonists, but there is a curious superficiality about its excavation of their lives. In Brian’s Story, the interviews are sensitively-handed and illuminating; but when Hanan engages the brothers with questions, neither is particularly forthcoming, rather too aware of the camera. The final scene of tidy domesticity – reading on the father’s chair – is titled ‘Epilogue’, but one suspects it is not the last chapter. The brothers’ heartfelt promises, like those of Brian, are frequently broken; the flat was last cleared in 2007, and it is unlikely to stay clean for long. 

Thy Father’s Chair is screening at the Open City Documentary Festival, 23 June 2016.

About the author

Benjamin Ramm is editor-at-large of openDemocracy. He writes features for BBC Culture and presents documentaries on BBC Radio 4. He tweets at @BenjaminRamm

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